Breast Milk: The Nutritional Benefits of Breastfeeding
July 26, 2013
Senior Culinary Nutritionist Andrea Canada shares her knowledge and experience on the nutritional benefits associated with breastfeeding your baby.
The world eagerly awaited the future King of England and now all eyes are watching to see what kind of parents Kate and William will be. With all of this media attention, I thought this might be an appropriate time to discuss the benefits of breastfeeding.
In the U.S., breastfeeding can be quite a controversial topic - sparking health, legal and moral debates. New mothers receive plenty of advice (and unfortunately some unsolicited judgments) from family, friends, medical professionals and even complete strangers about whether they should breastfeed, for how long, where it’s appropriate and more. While most of the advice is well-intended, I know from my experience as a mother that all this advice can be overwhelming at an already-challenging time.
With today’s post, I’m attempting to present many of the benefits of breastfeeding -- along with the challenges -- to educate those who may not know why breastfeeding can provide such an important start to life for a new baby.
Breastfeeding can benefit the infant and the mother in a number of ways:
Breast milk is perfectly balanced for infants and easy to digest
The American Academy of Pediatrics recognizes that human milk is the best food for the vast majority of infants, including premature and sick newborns. A mother's milk has the right amount and types of fat, sugar, water, protein, vitamins and minerals needed for an infant’s growth and development.
Breast milk helps keeps infants from getting sick
Colostrum -- the first milk a mother’s body produces in the days after birth -- helps guard against germs by forming a protective layer on a baby’s mucous membranes located in the intestines, nose and throat. The main immune factor in colostrum is immunoglobulin A (IgA), which makes early initiation of breastfeeding vital in order for infants to receive its maximum protective benefits.
Over time, breast milk continues to contain disease-fighting components that protect infants from illness. Studies have shown that diarrhea, lower respiratory illnesses and otitis media (ear infections) occur less frequently in breastfed babies and are less severe when they do occur.
Breast milk may help with food or respiratory allergies
Studies have found that breastfeeding for six months or more decreases the likelihood of developing food or respiratory allergies in infants. It is believed that the fatty acids and immune factors such as IgA in breast milk help prevent allergic reactions by guarding against large foreign proteins entering an infant’s system.
Breastfeeding allows babies to regulate feeding based on hunger cues
Breastfeeding may help protect against overweight and obesity since breastfed babies are better at regulating their feedings, leading to healthier eating patterns as they grow and develop.
Breastfeeding helps mothers heal after birth
Nursing after birth raises the levels of oxytocin, a hormone that signals the release of breast milk and also helps the uterus return back to pre-pregnant size and prevent postpartum hemorrhage.
Breastfeeding can help mothers return to their pre-pregnancy weight
Milk production requires the body to expend 200-500 calories per, and as a result breastfeeding mothers have an edge on losing pregnancy weight. Studies have confirmed that breastfeeding mothers lose more weight and are better able to keep weight in control compared to non-breastfeeding mothers.
Breastfeeding may help prevent cancer
Non-breastfeeding mothers have been shown to have a higher risk of reproductive cancers. It is estimated that breastfeeding from six to 24 months throughout a women’s reproductive lifetime may reduce the risk of breast cancer by 11-25%, possibly due to suppressed ovulation and low estrogen during this time.
Mothers want the best for their children, so with all these benefits breastfeeding should be an easy choice. In fact, in the US 75% of mothers initiate breastfeeding. However, there are numerous barriers to breastfeeding - so much so that it is not a choice many mothers feel they actually have.
Returning to work weeks or months after giving birth can derail a mother’s efforts to continue breastfeeding. While mothers can express milk for their growing baby at work, the milk production works best when actually nursing a baby and mothers may find that they just can’t supply as much milk for their babies. Legislation and public sentiment is making workplaces increasingly friendly to breastfeeding mothers, allowing for time and a clean room to pump at work. However, the US does not mandate paid maternity leave - a benefit that could provide many mothers the financial security to stay home with their babies. In contrast, varying levels of paid maternity leave for mothers (and fathers—let’s not forget them!) are common in other nations.
From personal experience, I know breastfeeding can be painful and exhausting with a learning curve for everyone in the family. But it can also be a healthy, convenient, cost-effective and rewarding choice. Making it successfully through the challenging initial months requires a complete support network from family members, the community, legislators and employers alike.
For additional resources on breastfeeding, check out these great websites:
The American Academy of Pediatrics. Breastfeeding. Available at: http://www2.aap.org/breastfeeding/. Accessed on July 24, 2013.
United States Department of Health and Human Services. Breastfeeding. Available at: http://www.womenshealth.gov/breastfeeding/index.cfm?page=227. Accessed on July 24, 2013 .
Le Leche League International. Can Breastfeeding Prevent Illness? Available at: http://www.llli.org//FAQ/prevention.html. Accessed on November 16,2008.
Kull I, Almqvist , Lilja G, et al. Breast-feeding reduces the risk of asthma during the first 4 years of life. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2004; 114:755-760.
Brewer, M.M., Bates, M.R., Vannoy, L.P. Postpartum changes in maternal weight and body fat deposits in lactating vs. nonlactating women. Am J Clin Nurs 1989; 49: 259.
The American Academy of Pediatrics. Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk, Executive Summary. Available at: http://www2.aap.org/breastfeeding/files/pdf/Breastfeeding2012ExecSum.pdf. Accessed July 24, 2013.
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